CPAC re­brands it­self with a ‘T’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANA MIL­BANK Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

Pres­i­dent Trump, ad­dress­ing the an­nual Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Fri­day, rem­i­nisced about the “very ex­cit­ing” mo­ment sev­eral years ago when he had his com­ing out as a con­ser­va­tive.

I was there when Trump spoke at that 2011 CPAC gath­er­ing, at its for­mer site in the Mar­riott ball­room in Wash­ing­ton’s Wood­ley Park neigh­bor­hood. Then, as now, Trump was an­gry. But he didn’t ut­ter a peep that day about im­mi­gra­tion or the border wall, ter­ror­ism, or Iran or Iraq — the is­sues that mo­ti­vate him now.

What made him mad then was gas prices. He had just seen gas sell­ing for $4.54 a gal­lon. “It’s go­ing to go much higher,” he said, pre­dict­ing prices of $7 to $9 a gal­lon. “Be­lieve me, in a year or two from now you’re go­ing to be pay­ing that, as sure as you’re sit­ting there.”

A year and two later, av­er­age gas prices were, re­spec­tively, $3.55 and $3.65, on the way down to $1.70 in 2016. Trump — his dire fore­casts proved wrong — dropped that cru­sade.

Re­watch­ing the 2011 CPAC video was in­struc­tive. Trump al­ready had frag­ments of what would be­come cam­paign lines: The United States is “the laugh­ing­stock of the world.” Other coun­tries “are screw­ing us.” “Our coun­try will be great again.” But other than is­sues such as China, he was an­i­mated by dif­fer­ent sub­jects (So­mali pi­rates!). Trump had lit­tle in­ter­est in con­ser­va­tive ide­ol­ogy then or now, in­stead ex­ploit­ing the pub­lic pas­sion of the mo­ment.

What’s changed is not Trump but the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. When he spoke at CPAC in 2011, con­ser­vatism was an ide­ol­ogy. By this year’s con­fer­ence, con­ser­vatism had be­come a col­lec­tion of griev­ances. It had be­come Trump­ism.

In 2011, the Rea­gan prin­ci­ples still held sway: free trade, lim­ited gov­ern­ment, U.S. lead­er­ship over­seas, and plans to re­form en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams at home to bal­ance the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nances. Now, to judge from the adu­la­tion for Trump and his agenda at CPAC last week, con­ser­vatism is about: rip­ping up trade deals, ex­pand­ing ex­ec­u­tive po­lice pow­ers, re­treat­ing from foreign en­gage­ment, and declar­ing Medi­care and So­cial Se­cu­rity in­vi­o­late. How did this hap­pen? At CPAC last week, Trump em­ployed his usual knack for al­ter­na­tive facts when he said he “had very lit­tle notes” at his 2011 speech, yet “ev­ery­body was thrilled.” In fact, he read closely from his speech. And, though most did swoon for the re­al­ity-TV star, he was booed lustily by the Ron Paul sup­port­ers, while many laughed at his now-char­ac­ter­is­tic boasts (“I grad­u­ated from . . . the best busi­ness school”) while some so­cial con­ser­va­tives were wary. He was in­vited by a gay Repub­li­can group, and he had pre­vi­ously fa­vored abor­tion rights and univer­sal health care.

When he re­turned to the con­fer­ence in 2013, he po­si­tioned him­self con­ser­va­tives. “The Repub­li­can Party is in se­ri­ous trou­ble,” he told them, and the go­ing “is go­ing to be a lit­tle bit tougher, and es­pe­cially as you get more and more con­ser­va­tive. They get nasty. They don’t like to hear what we have to say . . . . We have to get the mo­men­tum back.”

By then, he had dis­cov­ered im­mi­gra­tion as an is­sue, but not be­cause he was wor­ried about Mex­i­can rapists and killers. If il­le­gal im­mi­grants were made ci­ti­zens, he said, “ev­ery one of those 11 mil­lion peo­ple will be vot­ing Demo­cratic.” Repub­li­cans were “on a sui­cide mission,” he said. “Why aren’t we let­ting peo­ple in from Europe?”

As re­cently as last year, the CPAC crowd was still re­sist­ing Trump, who can­celed his ap­pear­ance and was mocked by Ted Cruz for it. Cruz spec­u­lated that Trump can­celed be­cause “he was told there were con­ser­va­tives that were go­ing to be here.”

Some con­ser­va­tive thinkers re­main nev­erTrump, but as last week’s gath­er­ing shows, they are no longer a vis­i­ble part of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. Trump ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way cor­rectly told the crowd CPAC was be­com­ing “TPAC.”

Matt Sch­lapp, chair­man of the group that hosts CPAC, pre­dicted that Trump “will be one of the great­est pres­i­dents that ever served this coun­try.”

CPAC even winked at the un­sa­vory el­e­ment of con­ser­vatism that rose with Trump. Although it of­fi­cially de­nounces the racist alt-right and evicted a white-na­tion­al­ist from the con­fer­ence, the group gave a prom­i­nent speak­ing role to Trump se­nior strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non, who had boasted that the com­pany he ran, Bre­it­bart News, was “the plat­form for the alt-right.” Bre­it­bart in years past held a counter-con­fer­ence out­side of CPAC called “The Un­in­vited” for those CPAC shunned be­cause of their views.

“I want to thank you for fi­nally invit­ing me to CPAC,” Ban­non said on­stage, not­ing there were “many alumni” of The Un­in­vited in the house.

They were. And they ap­plauded Trump’s de­nun­ci­a­tion of the “fake news” me­dia as “the en­emy of the peo­ple,” his con­dem­na­tion of free-trade deals and his talk about de­port­ing “bad dudes” and build­ing a wall.

The Un­in­vited are now on the dais at CPAC and in Trump’s Amer­ica.

May con­ser­vatism rest in peace.

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